REVIEW: Macbeth @Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Brian Butler July 13, 2018

Shakespeare’s Scottish play is grounded in our obsession with time – “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, “this ignorant present”. And “what’s done cannot be undone”  to mention just three references in the play.

Photo Credit : The Other Richard
Photo Credit : The Other Richard

AS if to emphasise this, Polly Findlay’s Grand Prix-speed production of Macbeth is played in front of a giant digital countdown clock whose two-hour traffic races us towards inevitable doom. Once he is dead, and Malcolm is crowned, the clock resumes is inevitable ticking down to another cycle of death and destruction – just a matter of time away.

The play is timely in another way – centring on the murder of a Scottish King  – written just a year after the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The resonance of regicide and treason which resounded with Shakespeare’s audience doesn’t today.

Niamh Cusack is electrifying as the utterly ruthless and ambitious Lady Macbeth frenetically rushes round the stage even in her highly charged sleep-walking scene.

Very few actors seem to get to grips with the contradictory character of Macbeth and maybe it’s not the best developed of Shakespeare’s villains. And to quote Macbeth himself, they are often “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Christopher Eccleston as the man who would be king or maybe isn’t bothered is impressive as the burly, swaggering, blustering warrior, but too often he mutters the magic poetry of the part and is inaudible when he turns upstage.

His finest moments come after his rushed coronation when his self-confidence  and clarity of thought show what the actor might have made of the rest of the part.

Polly Findlay has also decided to make this into a horror film. The witches are played by children in eerie polka dot onesies, clutching manic dolls and intoning in unison in a truly scary Stephen King style.

And full marks to Michael Hodgson as the Pinteresque Porter, chillingly acts sad Satan’s doorkeeper, chalking up the hundreds of deaths on the back wall of the stage.

Edward Bennett as Macduff is heart-wrenching when he discovers his wife and little children have been murdered. “ all? All? All? All? “ he repeats in a barely audible voice – a true moment of visceral theatre in this highly unorthodox production.

In our times of political upheaval in the USA and Europe, Shakespeare’s most poignant line in the play may be “poor country almost afraid to know itself”.

Macbeth runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon till September then transfers to London’s Barbican.

Review by Brian Butler